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  • Feature: Sin Nombre

    Fri, 20 Mar 2009 17:05:35

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    Sin Nombre may roughly translate to “the nameless” in English, but the film, written and directed by newcomer Cary Fukunaga, does not leave its subjects cloaked in a haze of anonymity. Rather, it takes the unnamed individuals entangled in immigration and gang-related conflicts and gives them distinctive voices. There is the gentle, yet markedly brave teenaged heroine, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) who is attempting to cross the border with her father, and troubled gang member Willy (Edgar Flores), who is experiencing inner group strife and finds himself unexpectedly riding atop trains with Sayra after a bloody showdown.

    The film transcends impersonal statistics, making involved parties and their individual plights real. Unlike simplistic and poorly executed cinematic inquiries into the same subject, a popular topic in Hollywood as of late, Sin Nombre is thoughtful and driven by personalities which give life and color to a multidimensional issue. In fact, calling it an “immigration” or “gang” film is too reductive altogether; it is a first and foremost about people and their many complexities.

    Initially, Sin Nombre was not intended to blossom into a feature-length project. It began as a short film (Victoria Para Chino) which was made while the East Bay native was attending graduate school at New York University. After completion, Victoria garnered two-dozen international accolades, including a student Academy Award and Sundance jury prize. After receiving such an unequivocally positive reception, it became clear that further creative exploration was in order.

    “When I was asked to do the feature film, it was just sort of me wanting people to see the full story,” says Fukunaga. “So, I started writing this feature and traveling and writing with immigrants in order to tell the story with as much authenticity as possible. I didn’t think about how I was going to finance it, or whether or not it was a good film to make as your first film. I was just [taking it] step by step.”

    A commitment to authenticity—both in the narrative and character portrayals—is crucial to films such as this, especially as, in Fukunaga’s words, similar pictures tend to “exoticize anything that isn’t American.” Fukunaga was uninterested in crafting a foreign world of ‘others,’ and dedicated his efforts to conveying a story that would resonate with various audiences.

    The main thing was to find out what these characters really wanted and try to make that as personal as possible.

    “Something that I knew I had to be sensitive to was the fact that…the themes [of Sin Nombre] had to be universal. Fortunately the themes are universal in terms of what the immigrants are going through and in what they want and the kind of people they are and how they live their lives. I guess, for me, the main thing was to find out what these characters really wanted and try to make that as personal to my experience as possible.”

    Fukunaga is somewhat soft-spoken, but there is certitude to his words which points to his passionate investment in Sin Nombre. He became fluent in Spanish in preparation for the film, and even took to riding the rails himself to develop a deeper understanding of that which he was putting on-screen. “After doing research and traveling with immigrants, there was a sort of emotional attachment, [which is] why I stuck with it until the very end. I was able to insert my personal experiences and perspective in the story,” says Fukunaga, who goes on to explain that the characters in the film were uniquely culled from real life. “I talked to hundreds of people, but no one character is based on one person. They’re based on both people I knew in my own life and people I knew while traveling. There were also some stories I heard from the immigrants that I traveled with—a collage of experiences.”

    It’s this collage—dynamic, spirited, and thoughtful—that makes Sin Nombre consistently engaging, and a worthwhile investment during spring movie season.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores

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